Chick-Lit: Decrying Women Novelists- Canít Say I blame you!
Copyright © by Jesicca Schneider, 3/8/04
I admit that I donít always match the color of my purse with that of my
shoes. No big deal, right? But in a Chick-Lit novel, this is a travesty. I used
to think that literarily, we were standing on the precipice of a very large
abyss. But after familiarizing myself with the genre known as Chick-Lit, I
realize that we are actually at the bottom, and have been for some time. In Lynn
Messinaís Chick-Lit novel Fashionistas, published by Red Dress Ink, her
lead character comments while having a drink with her friend at the bar,
"Writing genre fiction is easy: You follow a formula, do your best and in
the end if youíre not one-tenth as good as the people you adored growing up-
E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf- it doesnít really matter.
No one expected anything from you anywayÖ Itís taking yourself seriously as
a writer thatís hard."
When I think of my favorite novelists, no women come to mind. John Steinbeck, Charles Johnson, Erich Maria Remarque, and Hermann Hesse just to name a few. That is not to say there are not a handful of good female novelists from over the years, but despite the statistic that 3,500 novels are being published each year, those few do not hold place in todayís publishing. To put it frankly, women read novels, men read non-fiction and biographies. Virtually all the novels published today are geared for your average soccer-mom, and if thatís not the case, then itís for female twentysomethingís with short attention spans who like reading about people who work for the glossy magazines they like to read (as it is in the case of Fashionistas). The problem is, though, that there are two kinds of Chick-Lit. Chick-Lit and more Chick-Lit, or more specifically, Chick-Lit that is fluff and knows it and Chick-Lit that is fluff and doesnít.
I will address the first category and then rip into the next. Criticizing this first group of novels is like ripping on a soap opera. Everyone knows itís bad, and even the actors know itís bad. The thing that people donít realize is that pretense plays the biggest role in how much something deserves to be ripped. One does not criticize the daytime show Passions for not being Othello, because nothing is expected from it, other than mindless entertainment. So Messina is right in what she says- genre writers have it easy. Some of these Chick-Lit titles include Apocalipstic, Getting Over Jack Wagner, Good In Bed, Diary of a Mad Bride, Confessions of a Shopaholic, See Jane Date, Engaging Men, and The Thin Pink Line, referring specifically to the line seen from taking a pregnancy test- a spin off of the great war film title The Thin Red Line, as Iím sure Terrence Malick would be pleased. Equipped with nifty little covers and bright colors, I have to believe that if it wasnít for the attractive covers, no one would want to pick up the books.
All these novels involve in some way or another a female protagonist who is unsatisfied with her life, wants more, so she goes shopping and spends money she doesnít have, spending half the time lusting for a man she cannot have, and the other half at a trendy bar whining with another equally whiny girlfriend who has the same problems. But unfortunately, because these characters are so geared for the supposed trendy "21st Century Woman" no one will care about them by the time the 21st Century and a half comes around because a trend only matters when it is a trend. Serving mostly as a laundry list for contemporary brand name clothes and designers, these very novels (and clothing brand names) wonít mean anything in fifteen years, let alone fifty. New designers will have popped up, and new bars will be the trendy place to hang. So your only suggestion would be to write a shallow novel containing those new designers and new trends that will also go out of style in coming years, and so on.
Both See Jane Date and Engaging Men, for example, follow your predictable A-B-C format, where in SJD Jane is forced to find a date for a wedding, all the while ignoring the recommendations of her wacky aunt who informs her of a nice guy that would make a good match for her. So naturally, Jane dates and dates and dates a bunch of one-dimensional losers, falls for a doctor who ends up cheating on her, and in the end- wouldnít you know it- the aunt was right about the guy she recommended all along because Jane and the guy end up together. Woopie. In Engaging Men, actress wannabe Angie is dating a guy who we all know is an ass because the clues are spelled out for us. Yet she has a hot male roommate who has always been there for her. Gee, in the end who do you think she will end up with? It would be painful watching how the lead characters continue to not see the clues that are so easily spelled out for the readers - if only we actually gave a crap about them. But we donít. The thing about these novels that bugs me is that these books often run over three hundred pages with a shallow plot and character only suited for fifty.
But it is not difficult to see how these Chick-Lit writers have been boxed in, so that even if they wanted to break from the genre, many of them sign multiple book deals where they have to adhere to the pressesí guidelines. Some examples include Delta Trade, Downtown Books, Avon Books, and Red Dress Ink. If you go to the Red Dress Ink website, you will see their guidelines are so restrictive that no possible writer could diverge. Tone: Vibrant. We're looking for novels that really set themselves apart from the average chick lit book. Predictability is not your friend. Innovate, don't imitate.
What exactly is the average chick-lit book supposed to be? Could of fooled me - these books dispensable, in that you read one youíve read Ďem all. Each one is a knock off of the next, but again, the ax I grind isnít with this tripe - itís with the tripe that thinks itís literature but isnít.
I used to not read fiction for these very examples Iíve shown, but Iíve found that a good or great novel can do the same thing that a great poem by Yeats, Hayden, Stevens, or Jeffers can. But it is unfortunate that very few quality writings come from contemporary writers. Two books that piss me off equally are The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, and White Oleander, by Janet Fitch. White Oleander had been branded an Oprah pick, so that already had one strike against it in my book. But everyone had raved about the inane The Lovely Bones so that even though I was reluctant to try it- I caved, only realizing that I should have stuck to my instincts. The Lovely Bones is told in sixth-grade level prose by a banal character named Suzie, who gets murdered and then watches everyone from heaven. Suzie is a snoozer of a character who speaks in the wannabe drippings of a bad Confessional Poet - not like a fourteen-year old- (the age at which she supposedly was murdered). Often she makes trite comments about her younger sister as having "creamy skin" and "round breasts" with "rose-petal shaped eyes." Dead or not, I donít know any fourteen-year old who would speak that way about her sibling. Not only that, as though this mediocre crime-cum-wannabe literary novel isnít enough, Sebold obviously wasnít content with having a novel actually dealing with grief in a realistic manner, so she had to have the mother engage in an affair with the detective who is a moron and canít find reasons behind any of the clues. All the characters are morons except for, wouldnít you know it, the younger sister, who can see through it all and unlock the mystery behind The Lovely Bones. But by then the revelation is a big shrug of the shoulders "so what"? And really the last straw for me is when Suzie enters the body of this depressed poet wannabe (who reads The Bell Jar no less) so Suzie can have sex with the first guy she ever kissed. And the funny thing is, that this novel had a blurb comparing it to the masterful To Kill A Mockingbird- one of the prime examples where criticism attempts to make a connection between a book of bland writing with that of a Modern Classic when there isnít one.
White Oleander is as equal a disaster- where the main characterís mother is a "brilliant poet" who gets locked away for all her nuttiness, while the daughter goes from foster home to foster home. Not only is the lead character another crazy "poet" but sheís a "brilliant" one. Why? Because Janet Fitch says so. Intermingled with Fitchís flaccid prose drenched in bad metaphor meant to sound "poetic", are several passages of insipid, clichťd lines meant to be excerpts from the "brilliant poetís" "poems". This is not to say that anyone who knows a damn thing about poetry would see that the lines were doggerel, but obviously Fitch is relying on her target audience, white soccer-moms, who certainly wouldnít know the difference. Seeing this crap in print gave me a new appreciation for the A.S. Byatt novel Possession (which Iíve not read - only seen the film). At least Byatt respects her audience and the art enough that when she makes a book about poets she uses actual poems written by one (Robert Graves).
What is so infuriating about novels like The Lovely Bones and White Oleander, is that they are just like Hollywood movies- designed to not offend, not go over anyoneís head by being too creative, not require too much thinking or attention, and ultimately- have a concept that absolutely will not disagree with oneís sentiment. The ultimate success of these novels is dependent on having the audience agree with the sentiment behind them. Unfortunately, simply agreeing with oneís sentiment does not make for good art. Itís not a wonder why most women novelists are not taken seriously. People are lazy, so the first thing to do is place everything into a category, which is basically putting an expiration date on the work. Just as the horrid Ėism terms attached to poetry, the same thing happens with fiction. If youíre a woman writer, youíre either a Chick-Lit fluff writer or a Chick-Lit fluff writer trying to pass yourself off for literature. Either way, no one will take women seriously as writers in years to come if this is all we have to show for it. Let us hope that there will be a new generation of risky writers not afraid to take a chance and try something new. And hopefully some publishers will be open-minded enough to publish it. If not, I loathe to think weíd be quoting from Fashionistas fifty years from now!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 2/04 Hackwriters website.]
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